Public Service and Lottery

Lottery is a game of chance in which people buy tickets for a prize, often money. It is a form of gambling and also a public service, as it helps raise funds for a variety of public purposes, including schools, roads, hospitals, and social services. The earliest lotteries were probably held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to help poor townspeople and to build town fortifications. Those early lotteries were not state-run, but private businesses operated them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, states began to legislate monopolies on lottery operations, and the popularity of the games spread. Today, almost all states have legalized state-run lotteries.

In a lot of ways, Cohen argues, the lottery is an inverse form of heroin: It promises large gains with low risk. As with heroin, however, governments often fail to police their lotteries adequately and the risks can be high for participants. Moreover, while the profits from the lottery may seem trivial in comparison to other sources of government revenue, it is important to remember that a large percentage of the money won in a jackpot prize is paid out over time, which means that the winnings are subject to inflation and taxes that diminish their current value.

The modern incarnation of the lottery, Cohen contends, came about when growing awareness of all the money that could be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, as population growth and inflation accelerated, state budgets became strained and it became difficult to balance a government’s books without raising taxes or cutting services. This, as Cohen notes, coincided with a decline in prosperity for most working Americans. The income gap widened, jobs became more precarious, pensions and health-care benefits were eroded, and America’s long-standing promise that hard work and education would ensure future wealth waned.

State-run lotteries seemed like an easy way to solve these problems without angering voters and slashing public spending. But the resulting popularity of the games muddled the debate and encouraged people to believe that lotteries were more ethical than mere taxation.

In fact, though, state-run lotteries are a classic example of how public policy is made in the United States. The process is typically piecemeal and incremental, with little or no general overview. The result is that the officials in charge of a lottery must continually react to changing economic and political circumstances, which makes it all but impossible to develop a coherent state gambling policy. Many, if not most, of the nation’s lotteries are in trouble. As they seek to stay competitive, they are increasingly relying on the same old tactics: enticing customers with massive jackpots; promoting misleading odds; inflating the value of the prizes; and creating new games. As a result, the lottery has become a kind of drug that, even when it is not addictive, is still damaging to society. To a great extent, the problem is of our own making.